Under the Maple Leaf: Western Canadian Producers Band Together


One much talked-about problem facing Canadians is their isolation from each other. Canada is the world’s second-largest country, yet there are more Californians than there are Canadians. This relative emptiness gives some of us the feeling of being out in the hinterland, a tiny collective in a vast landscape shouting to the world ‘Yo! Up Here!’

Obviously, most Canadian business sectors have overcome this and Canada has always been a marvel of prosperity. But for film and television producers, prosperity has come through a tough, decades-long slog. Canadian producers now have a stellar reputation, but for them—particularly western Canadian producers—marketing has always been an expensive problem.

This has long been on the mind of Carole Vivier, CEO of Manitoba Film & Sound, the funding agency for that province’s film industry. Manitoba is increasingly busy as a production centre, and the agency funds 30 projects each year, with its $2 million budget and the provincial 35% tax credit it administers. On its own, as a marketing entity, Manitoba is small potatoes. On their own, so are the other western Canadian provinces. It occurred to Vivier that, if the four western provinces worked together, as a region, they could be an effective marketing force.

Vivier started discussing this with her counterparts at the funding agencies of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Last year, it was agreed that a joint-marketing venture would be created. It came into being this year, in the form of CanadaWest.

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The goal of CanadaWest is to help producers compete successfully in the international marketplace, by presenting a united profile to the international marketplace. And, through various marketing initiatives, to provide western Canadian producers with a way to seek out co-venture opportunities, find support for projects in development, market completed projects and meet with international buyers to build relationships and gain market intelligence.

There are now many marketing initiatives under discussion. But the first was a huge success—it occurred when CanadaWest made its debut at this year’s NATPE which, with 20,000 attendees, is North America’s largest annual film/television market.

“I was thinking of strength in numbers,” explains Vivier. “Manitoba has a very strong independent film community, but we need to build visibility at the main markets. And it’s too expensive for us to have our own booth at any of these shows. Plus, while everyone knows about Canada, international buyers may not know the name ‘Manitoba’.”

“We faced the challenge of finding opportunities for early- to mid-career producers to access international markets,” says BC Film President & CEO Rob Egan. “The cost of attending these markets is going up, and the budgets of the provincial agencies are going down, or getting tighter—in 1997, BC Film’s annual budget was cut from $5 million to $3 million.

“Where BC Film has had booths at previous markets, because of the cost, our booths have been small and not well-located. Because of budget limitations, we were not able to have much of a presence or profile, and neither were our producers, many of whom are smaller or mid-sized companies which don’t have the financial resources of many eastern Canadian companies.”

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Before CanadaWest, for a western Canadian production company to go to NATPE, it had to consider how many people to send. That would be multiplied by the airfare, the registration fee and accommodation, plus the production cost of one-sheets, presentation packages and demo reels. Then there was the booth—a booth in Telefilm Canada’s space costs $9000.

“For a small production company, it can be a real challenge to participate in one of these shows, and we kept hearing from producers that they couldn’t afford it,” continues Egan. “And the international markets cost even more. Cannes, MIPTV, MIPCOM, Banff—those are the key international buying and selling markets and all of us in western Canada feel it’s really important that our production companies have the opportunity to get to those markets, be competitive and sell their products.”

For NATPE in January, the four provincial agencies—along with industry sponsors and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, pooled $90,000. This bought a professionally-designed 1,200 square-foot booth, and premium placement. To producers, the booth came with all electronic bells and whistlers, plus display areas for promotional materials, a compilation DVD screened on large overhead monitors, some trade advertising, a media campaign and a participant booklet.

Drawing participants was no problem—the word was put out and producers only had to sign up. In attendance were the four funding agencies, plus five Alberta producers, four from Manitoba, three from Saskatchewan and 13 from BC. Each paid a nominal user fee—$250 allowed for signage, display space and access to a common meeting area. Another $750 added to that a shared meeting/screening room; $1500 bought a private meeting/screening room. Producers were pitching developed or completed animation, documentary, drama and digital media projects—and no one was disappointed.

canwest6“We didn’t get involved with CanadaWest to save money,” says producer Ron Goetz, CEO of Regina’s Partners in Motion. “We’ve been going to shows for four years, and each year the cost was about $15,000. But we immediately saw that $15,000 would go a lot further with CanadaWest.

“When you first go to the one of these markets, you tend not to have a booth. You stay on the floor, see what’s happening, and have meetings in other people’s booths. When we got our own booth at NATPE, it was in with all the independent producers, and that can be a jungle because you have all the mom-and-pop companies there. It worked, but it wasn’t ideal. The Telefilm booth is fine, but if you’re in there you’re one of many players. This year, with the CanadaWest booth, we got a private meeting room. We had our own office with our own stuff in it and buyers could come in to see us. We were able to spend the balance of our show budget on advertising and presentation materials. And, for the first time, we made sales at a market—about $50,000 worth. So it was worth it.

“The revenue from markets isn’t that high, but you have to go—the growth of this company would not have happened without our trade show attendance. With each show, you build relationships, people get to know you, and you learn how things work. So I had 60 meetings booked before I got there, but when the buyers showed up at the booth, it was ‘Wow!’ It was definitely a step up. We had a great location, in a sophisticated and professional booth, and that brought credibility to everyone in it. At these shows, booth location and appearance are crucial. The CanadaWest booth felt important and everyone  looked good.”

“It’s basic economy of scale,” explains Egan. “We had more money, so we had a better booth and location, a higher profile, a greater presence, more people. We attracted more visitors and more business. CanadaWest is an interesting initiative and people are looking at it as a real innovation—Telefilm Canada has been in touch to discuss the possibility of working on a Canada pavilion.

“We’re definitely going to continue with it. Any marketer will tell you that you can’t go once; you have to keep going. You have to build that presence and work to maintain it. And given the time it takes for a project to move from development to production to market, it’s critically important that our producers have access to these international markets year after year.”

Vivier was thrilled with the result and says that other things could happen, such as group advertising campaigns and international missions. “The visibility benefit was enormous. The booth was constantly busy—we had about 1,000 people stop by and it was wall-to-wall meetings. The space-booker from MIPCOM couldn’t believe how busy we were.”

For Vivier, there are other important factors. “Each province has its uniqueness and there’s already friendly competition. But this is also a good way for the production companies, which are so far apart geographically, to get to know each other and explore the idea of co-ventures.

Also, while it’s fiscally responsible, as funding agencies, to spend our money wisely and get the most profile for our products, I also feel it’s very important to market ourselves under the Canadian banner, under Canada as a brand. Canada has an amazing reputation, we have co-production treaties with almost every country, we’re proud Canadians and people look for Canada at these shows. We supply the grounding, the producers take advantage of it and develop their own relationships. But the concept of CanadaWest lets us market ourselves as Canadians first.”


Blitz Magazine, May 2001